Opening Address by Brendan Howlin to 2017 Labour Party Think In
10 September 2017
Party Leader and Spokesperson on Foreign Affairs and Northern Ireland
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Opening address by Brendan Howlin, T.D. Leader of the Labour Party at the Labour Party think-in, Athy, 10th September, 2017.
You are all very welcome to Athy - Mark Wall’s town, and the town that Jack served so well for so long.
This annual gathering provides an opportunity for us to outline our policy agenda for the coming parliamentary session.
It gives us the space to talk about our electoral strategies and opportunities.
It requires us to point out that Labour offers something very distinct to the other parties.
And of course it gives us a chance to briefly pause for breath before getting back to work.
I hope you all enjoyed the summer - there’ll be no more rest for a while now!
The party of work
We are first and foremost the party of work.
We are committed to helping people get into work;
And to making sure that it is decent work.
The lack of ambition from this Government in relation to employment is stark.
Yes, unemployment has fallen dramatically.
I know that Labour had more than something to do with that.
But, why are we now content?
Unemployment stands at 6.3%.
The official Government target is to get this to 5.5% next year.
And after that, they just want to hold steady.
Now, I don’t accept that we should write off more than one in twenty of our people.
I don’t accept that these people are unemployable.
Accepting that means accepting human tragedy:
Ambitions and opportunities lost;
Talent and ability wasted.
If the unemployment target is pitiful, the employment target is worse - we don’t have one.
Just over 65% of Irish adults of working age are in work.
Some more are in education and training, and that is certainly welcome.
But far too many of the remainder are simply left outside the labour force.
And because they don’t officially count as unemployed, they don’t seem to count at all.
Women and people with disabilities are the biggest cohorts of these.
We don’t provide affordable childcare in this state.
In 2013, just 51.7% of women with young children were working.
There is a cause here, and a clear effect.
Katherine Zappone has made some start on an affordable childcare scheme.
But in failing to cap fees to parents, the state support she has provided is being wiped out by increased charges.
If you don’t cap charges, then childcare will never be affordable.
And the state will continue telling women that they have no choice.
We don’t provide supports to people with disabilities.
The last Census found that only 30% of people with disabilities were in work.
There is a cause here too, and another clear effect.
But because many of these people don’t count as unemployed, they don’t seem to count at all.
They do to Labour.
I want Ireland to set a target of getting 75% of our people into work by 2022.
On the centenary of the foundation of the state, that would be a worthwhile achievement.
Now, I can imagine that some will suggest that Labour wants to force women out of the home.
We want to make sure that they are not forced to stay at home.
And we want the choice to be a real one.
Before this is dismissed as some Scandinavian pipe-dream, let’s look at some of the countries that have achieved this.
And yes, if you ask, most Scandinavian countries too.
Getting 10% more of our people into work would have a massive impact.
It would obviously boost economic growth.
It would reduce welfare dependency;
Give us greater income from taxes;
And above all else, it would cut poverty - and especially child poverty.
That’s a target worth setting.
Decency at work
If we care about the number of people in work, then we care just as much about the quality of that work.
The future of work looks uncertain in many ways.
A creeping casualisation;
Fears around the gig economy and precarious work;
The continuing drive towards automation and robotisation –
All of these make people fear for their futures.
But in many ways, these aren’t new issues.
Automation of work has been a reality since the industrial revolution.
The battle to secure decent pay and conditions likewise.
Regardless, addressing the fears around the future of work is our primary policy project.
We need to continue driving the minimum wage towards a living wage - so that work always pays.
Labour already got legislation enacted that defines bogus self-employment for the first time.
We need legislation to end effective zero hours contracts, so that people can go to bed on a Sunday night knowing at least how much work they will have for the week ahead.
Alongside our parliamentary work, to reduce casualisation and precarious work, the single best policy response is trade union membership.
That is why we proposed, and passed, legislation allowing freelance workers to join unions and collectively bargain.
Coming together in democratic structures, and organising to engage with employers for decency and justice in the workplace – that’s how pay and conditions are improved.
And no party understands this better than Labour.
Back in 2009, as crisis gripped our country, Joan Burton spoke loudly, clearly and repeatedly about the need to have a just tax system in this country.
After months of campaigning, Fianna Fáil finally agreed to implement minimum effective tax rates for high earners.
And it worked.
By saying that every high earner should pay at least 30% in tax, the state brought in hundreds of millions in additional tax revenues.
The closing of the double-Irish, and our participation in the OECD BEPS process were other important steps towards tax justice.
But still there is more to be done.
Over the last year, we have seen AIB boast to investors that they won’t have to pay any taxes for the next 30 years because of the losses they incurred while being bailed out by taxpayers.
We have seen Cairn Homes announce that their profits are up 191%, while our housing crisis endures.
We have seen continuing public concern over the low effective rates of corporation tax paid by some multinationals.
These are the stories that people hear;
And they are the stories that at a fundamental level people know to be unjust.
In the parliamentary session ahead, corporate tax justice will be at the heart of what we do.
We will fight for the standing commission on taxation that Joan has called for repeatedly - to make sure our rules get adjusted when lawyers and accountants figure out new ways around them.
We will argue for minimum effective tax rates for all profitable companies.
We will table legislation to limit the period of time that banks can continue to write off the losses that taxpayers had to bail them out for.
We will demand the withdrawal of refundable tax credits from companies who are paying no tax at all.
We will continue to say that employers should make a bit more of a contribution towards the cost of higher education.
And we will say clearly that if companies do not pay their staff decent wages, they should no longer be benefitting from reduced VAT rates.
A just tax system does not mean pitting one group against another;
It means everyone making a contribution.
That needs to include every company.
If it is clear who could make a greater contribution in Ireland, it is also clear where the need is most great.
Every party agrees that housing is one of the greatest challenges we face.
And yet, after three years of new plans being devised and implemented, it still appears that things are getting worse.
Whether looking at the Census returns which showed children under 4 as the biggest homeless cohort;
Or seeing the tragic ending of lives on our streets over recent weeks;
Or even watching as young people see the dream of home ownership slipping ever further from their grasp;
The problem is clear.
The solutions equally so.
And so every time Fine Gael say the market will solve the problem;
And every time that Fianna Fáil propose a tax cut for developers;
We will take them on.
Because there is no reason the state cannot be the builder of last resort when the market is broken - that is what states do.
There is no reason the remit of NAMA could not be amended now, to make it Ireland’s affordable housing body.
There is no reason we cannot dramatically increase capital spending, and get local authorities back building local authority homes.
There is no reason we cannot impose a vacant property levy, and bring forward the vacant site levy.
And there is certainly no reason we cannot better control escalating rents.
The only reason is a political one - these are not actions that parties of the centre-right will ever consider.
And over the months ahead we will not let up until these ideas are taken on board and implemented.
If housing is a national emergency - and I believe it is, then Brexit is the greatest unrealised risk that we face.
In two weeks, I will travel to Brighton for the British Labour Conference.
While there, I will be welcoming their moves to now support continuing membership of the single market and the customs union.
And I will be arguing that they should go further.
In the meantime, they are also proposing to vote down the great repeal bill.
And this is an opportunity for cooperation between all of those in the House of Commons who are on the left.
If they have moved position, then others could yet do the same.
In Ireland’s interest, there is something that Sinn Féin should undertake in Ireland’s interest.
I’d like them to reconsider their stance on the Westminster parliament.
And I don’t say this to score points.
I mean it.
Abstentionism has its roots in Griffith’s Sinn Fein and as such represents a long stranding view of all Irish parties that owe their origins to that coming together in 1917.
Westminster was rejected because it had rejected a long standing claim for Home Rule.
By 1918 even the Irish Parliamentary Party left Westminster as a result of the conscription crisis.
Westminster, which once had facilitated Irish democracy by passing the land from Gall to Gael, now impeded Irish democracy.
So Irish attitudes to sitting in that parliament have tended to be judged by what we perceive as being in our national interest.
And beating Brexit does too.
When times change, when Ireland’s interest demands, that is when people step up to the plate.
I can’t think of a better test of Sinn Fein’s readiness to govern than rising to the national challenge on this occasion.
The hollow promise of a new European centre
When speaking about what Labour is, it is also useful to speak about what we are not.
We are not a party of the centre.
And in truth, no other party in Ireland is either.
That’s what vexes me most about our new Taoiseach’s claim to belong to some mythical new European centrism.
For a start, Fine Gael are members of Europe’s conservative right wing political family. They are not centrists.
And in truth, if you had asked me to pick a single representative of the last Government who best represented the views of conservative Christian Democracy, I would have reached for Leo Varadkar.
His desire for deeper spending cuts in 2011;
His initial opposition to repeal of the eighth amendment and gender recognition legislation; His campaign promise to outlaw public sector strikes;
All of these are very conservative stances that any Christian Democratic party would be happy with.
Our arguments - for living wage; for investment in capital spending; for free education and affordable childcare; for social and affordable housing for everyone - each of these arguments has merit.
These policies weren’t plucked from the sky.
To counteract anger in society, we must once again offer hope - a vision for a future that is better than the present.
You would expect a party committed to a new European Centre to advocate policies exactly like these, especially if they are seeking to counteract the threat of growing populism.
Instead, we get language like ‘spending splurges’, ‘protecting our competitiveness’ and cutting taxes for ‘those who get up early in the morning’.
This isn’t new European centrism.
It is conservatism.
And it comes with the full support of Fianna Fail.
If Fine Gael remain a right-wing party wrapping themselves in language of centrism, then Fianna Fáil remain much the same, but with a bit more of a nod and a wink.
Just a week ago, Barry Cowen came out and called for a glut of tax cuts and reduced charges for property developers.
It is as if they wilfully refuse to learn any lesson from our last crash.
The crash that not just brought our banking system to it’s knees;
But also created the scandals of Priory Hall, and similar developments.
I cannot understand the irresponsibility; the casual preference for landlords and developers above others; the tacit acceptance of right-wing Fine Gael budgets;
All of these can only remind us of the Fianna Fáil that was happy in coalition with the Progressive Democrats, blindly steering our economy off a cliff.
We are opposed to Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil policies.
But for Labour it is not enough to be opposed to things.
We must also show clearly what we are for.
And one of those things is a stronger left in Ireland.
We decided at our Conference in April that we would contest the next election as an independent party.
And we will.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t work with parties on issues where we agree.
I will talk to anyone that wants to join the Labour Party.
But I will also talk to anyone that wants to work with the Labour Party to achieve progress; and to deliver decency, justice and equality in our society.
That is why we were happy to stand with the Green Party when introducing the Waste Reduction Bill, and why they worked with us on banning microbeads.
It is why we worked in the Seanad with left-leaning independents, Greens and members of Sinn Féin to call for an end to third-level fees.
It is why Alan Kelly worked alongside Roisin Shortall on the future of healthcare committee.
Their report, and the idea of Sláintecare, had cross-party support.
And rightly so.
It is progressive, and would deliver equality in healthcare.
That Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin continue to argue for their own party political proposals is a shame.
Our work with other parties on the left will not end there.
In the coming Dáil session, we will table the Genuine Progress Indicators Bill and other legislation to move us from measuring the size of our economy, towards measuring the wellbeing of our people.
We will fight for real employment targets,
And for improving the rights of those in work.
We will argue for tax justice;
For investment in health and housing;
For truly affordable childcare, and genuinely free education.
I hope these ideas will get support from all those on the left;
And maybe even from those who profess to be of the centre.